Extension talks around the game

We’ve heard a lot this winter about how teams are going to be cautious with major free agent acquisitions from now on, hesitant to give sub-elite guys multi-year deals worth tens of millions of dollars. And, on a certain level, that makes sense. Free agent dollars have some serious efficiency issues.

One area in which spending hasn’t slowed, however, is the extensions market. Just this winter, the likes of Joe Mauer, Roy Halladay, Justin Upton, Adam Lind and Franklin Gutierrez all inked deals that give their teams control of them through at least 2014. In addition to the all-but-certain Pujols-Cardinals deal, here are three other extension cases in the news.

The done deal: Josh Beckett

Beckett and the Red Sox announced that Beckett is under contract with the club through 2014. In exchange for his services, Beckett will make about $80 million over the next five years, at which time he’ll be 34 years old. Beckett has fit the workhorse mold brilliantly in his Boston career, now entering its fifth season. He has topped the 200 innings mark three times in four years, amassing 723 strikeouts to just 203 walks. While he hasn’t been the best pitcher in the American League while with Boston—either over the four-year duration or at any one time—he’s been just about everything you could want from a front-of-the-line starter.

So why does his deal make me nervous? Well, to start with, the Red Sox are now locked into a whole lot of expensive pitching. Beckett and the newly acquired John Lackey each will make about $80 million through 2014. The club also owes Daisuke Matsuzaka another $28 million through 2012, which doesn’t even factor in anything remaining of the $51.1 million it cost to negotiate with the former Seibu Lion. And while John Lester is inexpensive this season ($3.75 million), his 2011-14 salaries will total $38 million.

To put a neat little bow on it: In 2011, the club will owe those four starters (Beckett, Lackey, Matsuzaka and Lester) $46.75 million. In 2012, those four account for $48.625 million of payroll. That’s a ton of money to be spending on four-fifths of a starting rotation. And this scenario isn’t without irony: The least-paid member of the quartet (Lester) will likely be the best pitcher of the bunch. In addition to my concerns about allocating so much payroll on pitching to begin with, I have some concerns about what the Red Sox are getting for their newest $68 million commitment.

Beckett’s really good. He’s taken the ball, struck guys out, hasn’t walked a ton, and—since 2006—generally has avoided home runs. But is “really good” enough to justify this sort of contract? Looking backward, the answer is an easy “yes.” Look at the old-school numbers: 65 wins to just 34 losses. An ERA never exceeding 4.03. Or throw the new-fangled wizardry at the problem: xFIP’s of 4.29, 3.43, 3.24 and 3.35. Still, I see red flags.

Last season, Beckett’s K/BB rate was 3.62—still very, very good, but well off the pace of the league leaders (and well worse than his ’07 and ’08 figures). He’d been performing at such extraordinary levels that subtracting half a strikeout and adding half-a-walk caused his K/BB rate to drop by more than 20 percent. And while his fastball has lost only about 0.6 mph since he began in Boston, it was much less effective last year than in those outstanding ’07 and ’08 years. Then, it was worth 0.92 and 1.05 runs per 100 pitches. Last season, that figure dropped to 0.10. This is not what you want to see from a guy on the wrong side of 30. While there’s little suggesting Beckett’s done, there’s also reason to believe he’s peaked.

But, you might say, the Red Sox are rich; who cares? The problem is that the club is now locked into three expensive starters (and one increasingly costly one) for the next three years. While this might not hurt the Red Sox financially, it certainly robs the club of roster flexibility. What happens if a prospect comes roaring up from the minor leagues? Who gets bumped? The Red Sox need to give Clay Buchholz every chance to seize a regular turn in the rotation. Should he accomplish just that, the Red Sox are out of room to break anyone else in—not to mention that it likely denies Tim Wakefield the chance to become the winningest pitcher in club history.

These things generally tend to work themselves out; Matsuzaka could well pull a hammy tying his shoes, or Buchholz might be utterly ineffective. There can’t really be such a thing as too much pitching, right? Well, I’m not sure that’s the case. I certainly think there can be too much locked-in pitching, and the Red Sox are pretty much wedded to this quartet through 2012. The question, in my book, is whether the club can fully develop its young pitching despite the unavailability of anything more than spot starts.

The work in progress: Prince Fielder

This one’s easy, right? Of his four full seasons with the Brewers, Fielder’s career-low ISO is .213. The low-water wOBA mark? .354. Do you prefer your numbers unmolested by punctuation? Try 160 homers in his first 675 games. Fielder can flat-out rake, and his UZR trends at least suggest he might not be a total sieve at first base, to boot. This is a no-brainer. With no in-house stud requiring time at first, Milwaukee should be banging the door down trying to get Fielder to re-up for an extra half-dozen years.

Which is probably just what’s going on. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio describes discussions with the Fielder camp—chiefed by Scott Boras—as “ongoing,” though there’s no word that numbers have been exchanged yet. Boras’ presence, of course, can’t be seen as a factor conducive to getting an extension done. Fielder has had more success at the plate through his first four years than another famous Boras client, Mark Teixeira. While Teixeira is certainly better-regarded as a gloveman, the cases are close enough for comparison. Teixeira, on Boras’ urging, managed to resist long-term overtures from three different front offices: Texas, Atlanta and Los Angeles (AL). So why is Fielder’s case different?

First, it appears that Fielder is more motivated to strike a deal with the Brewers than was Teixeira with any of his early employers. Whether this is due to a particular affinity for the organization or something else is a matter of speculation. Judging by his play on the field, he apparently has developed a certain level of comfort in Milwaukee. And, for whatever it’s worth, the elder Fielder (Cecil), spent the meat of his career in an upper-Midwest city, Detroit. Of course, the younger Fielder’s eagerness to cash in might be due in some part to the ridiculous winter-2011 class of free agent first basemen.

Should they fail to reach an extension with their current teams (or perhaps an acquiring-by-trade team), Fielder will join Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Howard on the market between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Going by UZR, Fielder seems the strongest bet to require a DH spot, which would severely devalue him as a free agent. Fewer suitors, less competition; you know how it goes. Problem is, there might not be any high-dollar clubs looking to break the bank for a DH that winter. The Yankees have Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and (presumably) Derek Jeter. The Red Sox seem to be moving away from high-dollar, single-dimension players. The Twins seem likely to hang on to Justin Morneau, and they’ll have to worry about a Mauer position change by then.

It’s not an issue of Fielder finding a job. Rather, it’s about the present value of money. If he’s happy in Milwaukee and can lock in an elite-level payday without having to compete with the other giants on the market, all the better for him. There’s no doubt he’s an elite player now, one of the best hitters in the game. If he can get paid like one for the next several years—despite looming questions about his defense, conditioning, and how he’ll age—-it would be a huge coup for Boras and Fielder.

The longshot: Adam Dunn

Dunn’s in the news today, too. He’s been very public about his willingness—eagerness, even—-to stay in the nation’s capital long-term. It seems, you see, that he wants to be a part of the first good Nationals team, presumably the one featuring Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond and the Zimmerman(n)s, Ryan and Jordan. That’s all well and good; Dunn is a first-rate masher. And, in a vacuum, the Nats would probably love to have him around. The issue here, though, is one of value.

It’s simple, really: Dunn is certainly worth more to an American League team than a National League one. His “glove” just doesn’t play in the NL. Having him in an NL lineup is a gross misallocation of his considerable talents. With his bat alone, he’s a 2.5-3.5 win player. There’s a lot of value there. The problem is that his misadventures into the field sap him of so much of his worth; he’s cost his teams at least 14.9 runs in the field each season since 2005, and he posted a ghastly -36.3 fielding figure last season.

Think of it this way: Imagine there was a league with a designated fielder. Adam Everett would certainly need to play in it to maximize his value to his team, right? It’s the same with Dunn. He’s just not worth that much money in the National League. To Dunn’s credit here, this will be his first season as a dedicated first baseman. However, he hasn’t shown anything thus far in his career that would encourage the Nationals to bet on him to turn into an even below-average fielder there. I’ve always liked Dunn as a player, but the NL experiment needs to be over. And I called his extension hopes a “long shot” because the experiment is likely over. The Nationals won’t offer him what he believes his bat to be worth, and it’s likely he’ll ply his trade next season in the league where his glove plays. Or, rather, doesn’t have to.

Conclusion

Beckett was the first domino to fall in what might be a busy year for long-term extensions. The Pujols deal will get done, and Messrs. Jeter and Rivera seem awfully likely to re-ink with the Yankees without hitting the market. Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee are two other notable candidates for possible extensions with the Red Sox and Mariners, respectively.

Each case provides different risks; Pujols’ contract (combined with Matt Holliday‘s) could be a crippling burden on a middle-market club. The clock will strike midnight for Jeter and Rivera at some point. Martinez is no longer a catcher. Lee has some performance-related red flags in his background. Still, extensions for each of these players make sense, assuming the agents and organizations can see eye-to-eye on the player’s worth to his team.

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Comments

  1. TsB said...

    In relation to your comment on the Red Sox roster flexibility after signing Beckett, who is it really blocking? The top three Red Sox pitching prospects are Casey Kelly, Stolmy Pimentel and Junichi Tazawa. Of those, Kelly and Pimentel have an eta of mid-2011 to 2012+, and who knows on Tazawa since he will miss all of this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. This gives the Red Sox two years or so to see how Clay Buchholz does in an everyday role, and come 2012 who knows what Tim Wakefield will be doing? He’s only 18 wins away from breaking the record so he may do that in the next two years and retire. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Beckett is likely on the decline, but I don’t think it hampers them hugely flexibility-wise. It could perhaps hurt Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden, but neither are top 10 prospects.

  2. starkweather said...

    It surprises me to learn that the UZR difference between Fielder and Howard is heavily weighted in Howard’s favor.  To my eyes, Ryan Howard is one of the great butchers in the history of 1B.  Shows what I know, I guess.  FWIW, I never thought much of Prince Fielder’s defensive abilities just can’t believe Ryan Howard is better, and noticably at that, than anybody.

  3. D Leaberry said...

    Dunn has done a fine job converting to first-base.  Moreover, most of Ryan Zimmerman’s errors are throwing errors rather than fielding errors.  Dunn’s 6’6” target is likely to cut down on Zimmerman’s errors.  As Washington Post longtime sportwriter Tom Boswell noted in his Q & A today, Dunn has proved himself adept at snatching Zimmerman’s short and in the dirt throws.  Adam Dunn should be signed to an extension.

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